Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why are Small Presses Necessary?

A topic of continual debate, this selection has been taken from Kaleidoscope: An International Journal of Poetry Volume 3.2 (2002).

Keep Your Hands in the Car at all Times: Why are Small Presses Necessary? By Geoff Hancock

Because change brings criticism, small presses are often attacked as being a junk filled fool's paradise, for elitism, for low literary standards, for ego-mania. Yet small presses are the genius behind North American creative writing.

Historian George Grant, taking a conservative approach, argued that Canada leapt too quickly and blindly, from the l9th century past to the modern era. We missed a stage, Grant argues, between classic printing, mimeo, and high-tech. Pessimistically, Grant suggests we separated ourselves from our original nature, and from our God, and still sense the loss. Canadians poets, dramatists, and novelists instinctively return to origins in their creative works.

But as society changes, so do the discourses. Cultural critics Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Arthur Kroker suggested as a national community Canada is a product of technology. The theories of McLuhan and his followers, Canada's principal contribution to North American thought, consists of a highly original and eloquent discourse on technology. Marshall McLuhan, with his Catholic sense of community, hoped media communication would bring us together as a human race in a global village. Kroker argues Canada is an in-between nation, between Europe and America.

The small presses, strength in their numbers, did not exploit our imagination or creativity. They participated in it. Small presses speak to the future of Canadian literature. To be published in Canada by a small press is to contribute to the existence of our culture.

When you touch a press, you touch a person. In this sense, the work of our innovative poetries is fundamentally one of social work. Not surprisingly, most Canadian authors have had a long association with the small presses and little magazines. The traditional theory explains small presses were merely the starting point of their careers. For some this is true, but those presses also allowed freedom of expression that a more commercial editor or cautious sales representative might have restricted.

Against the backdrop of Canadian small press publishing through the l970s and 80s, we get the American cultural imperialist monster. Celeste West, writing The Passionate Perils of Publishing, and speaking on behalf of American small presses, notes as early as the seventies that the eight largest American publishing houses — Random, Knopf, Ballantine, Modern Library, Vintage, Pantheon, Singer, and Beginner Books — were all publishing imprints owned by RCA, a six billion dollar a year conglomerate.

According to the Association of American Publishers, in the l970s, 3.3% of over 10,000 book publishers in the USA (including the small press publishers), controlled over 70 % of the country's' volume. By the l980s, other conglomerates, such as Xerox ITT, and Gulf & Western, controlled almost all the books produced in the United States. Thirty years later, the situation worsened. By 2000, Random, Knopf, Doubleday, and McClelland & Stewart were owned by Bertelsmann, one of the world's largest German companies. The publishing arm represents about four percent of their holdings.

Canadians have every reason to fear for their culture in the face of such publishing strength. But monolithic large publishing houses are outdated concepts. Based as they are on hierarchy and authority, the big publishing house is no longer adequate for the range and unpredictability of human experience.

The small presses had an alternative. They decided to "roll their own" in small runs. The staple of the independent literary press is the single-author poetry collection. Using cheaper reproduction methods, and learning for themselves the complex stages of production, design, warehousing, promotion, distribution, and lobbying, the small presses of Canada contributed their own version of alternative publishing to the long small press tradition of revolution and renaissance.

More than that, the small presses of Canada are part of a radical political movement. Power politics expressed in that ideological confrontation between Canadian nationalism, provincial regionalism, and American and British imperialism. A time of affluence, the existence of Romantic models and the American crisis of Vietnam, civil rights, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and new philosophical ideas related to bohemianism, contributed to the seedbed of the small presses.

Geoff Hancock edited Canadian Fiction Magazine and published a variety of innovative fiction anthologies with Canadian small presses including Magic Realism; Illusion: fables, fantasies, and metafictions; Shoes and Shit: stories for pedestrians; and Singularities: new directions in fiction and physics.

The entire article can be read in Kaleidoscope: An International Journal of Poetry Volume 3.2 (2002). Please go to to order.